Recordings: Riding the Reels

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When the technique of tape recording was developed a quarter-century ago, it unreeled a whole new way of marketing recorded music. The best tapes had all the high fidelity of phonograph disks but none of their low resistance to wear and tear. The trouble was that they were cumbersome: wound on one reel, they had to be threaded through the playback machine onto another reel, then rewound. In the process, the hapless user could find himself struggling like Laocoon within coils of tape. Before taped music could begin to have the mass appeal of disks, something was needed to simplify the handling.

Simplicity came three years ago with the introduction of the tape cartridge. The cartridge is a plastic case somewhat smaller than a paperback book. It contains a continuous loop of tape that automatically starts rolling when the cartridge is inserted in a slot on the playback machine; thus the user never touches the tape itself.

One of the secrets of the cartridge's miniaturization is that its tape moves more slowly over the sound pickups than conventional reel-to-reel tape. Since sound quality is related to tape speed, the cartridge sacrifices some high fidelity—but in return it crams in an average of 80 minutes of uninterrupted music. Its biggest market so far has been in autos; since 1966, Detroit manufacturers have offered dashboard-model cartridge players as optional equipment on new models.

Lilliputian Variant. Now, in the newest twist in tapes, a variant on the cartridge has come along that is even more convenient and Lilliputian than the original. Called a cassette, it encases a tape and two tiny reels within a plastic box scarcely bigger than a pack of cigarettes. It snaps into a player as handily as the cartridge does, but it must be removed and turned over at the midpoint of its playing time, which averages 40 minutes. Since it moves even more slowly than the cartridge, it sacrifices still more sound quality. But it boasts two big advantages. Unlike most cartridges, it can be wound forward or backward for playback of selected portions of the tape. And a blank cassette can be used in most players to record directly from radio, TV, disks—or a concert stage.

Actually, cassette recorders have been in use for several years as dictating tools for executives, actors, doctors and language instructors. Today they are widely used in the music world as well. Conductor Herbert von Karajan saved rehearsal time for last year's Salzburg Festival production of Die Walküre by having the singers study cassettes made from his earlier recording of the opera. Mezzo-Soprano Regina Resnik taped a recording of Adriana Lecouvreur on her cassette and is now using it to learn the role she will sing next season at the Met.

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